WASHINGTON — Friends and family rallied 'round Republican Jeff Denham of Atwater on Wednesday as he took the oath as the San Joaquin Valley's newest congressman.
Accompanied on an unusually vibrant House floor by his son, Austin, and daughter, Samantha, Denham officially joined Congress shortly after noon. He then cast his first votes, as the 112th Congress formally set sail.
"It's exciting," Denham said. "You have the excitement of the swearing-in, and then you have the honor and the privilege of serving."
Some political novices shared his excitement, in spades.
Up in the visitors' gallery, Denair resident Cody Alicea and his 67-year-old grandfather, Robert, were prepared to observe the scene.
"It's pretty awesome," Cody said. "We've been studying about this place in school, and it feels nice to be here and to see the actual thing, not just a video."
Cody, who turned 14 on Jan. 1, earned his place inside the Capitol by a patriotic run-in with school authorities.
In November, on Veterans Day, Cody flew a large American flag from the back of his bike. He said it was to honor veterans like his grandfather, who served in the Army as a missile crewman between 1962 and 1965. The Denair Middle School principal, though, told Cody to remove the flag for fear it would offend others.
The episode went viral, particularly among conservative media outlets, prompting the school to back down. Denham then offered Cody and Robert Alicea his two designated visitors' tickets as well as airfare, while the American Legion paid for hotel accommodations.
Himself an Air Force veteran, Denham won election in November to replace retiring congressman George Radanovich as representative of the 19th Congressional District. The district joins portions of Stanislaus and Fresno counties, via the Sierra Nevada range.
After being sworn in, Denham cast his first vote for Ohio Republican John Boehner as House speaker. Later, Denham and Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Visalia, were among 20 House members to miss the next vote, adopting GOP-drafted rules for the new Congress.
Underscoring the omnipresent political environment, Denham's missed vote was immediately criticized by Democratic National Committee spokesman Frank Benenati. The lawmakers, though, had their reasons. Nunes and others were caught in a remote location without a working elevator, while Denham was with his family and unreachable by the House whip's office.
On Tuesday, Denham's sixth-floor House office still had been relatively disheveled, with artwork still un-hung. By Wednesday morning, the room was presentable and stocked with brownies, sandwiches and snacks for visitors.
Denham said he awoke about 6:30 a.m. Wednesday, read the newspaper and went to services with his family at St. Peter's Catholic Church on Capitol Hill before beginning the business of joining Congress and greeting well-wishers.
Some who showed up served with Denham in the state Legislature, including state Sens. Doug LaMalfa from the Sacramento Valley and Tony Strickland from Southern California. Others anticipate working with Denham on local issues.
"He's a rock star, man, and he's going to do a great job for us," enthused Andy Krotik, a Realtor and former member of the Atwater City Council.
Denham already had attracted unique attention for a House freshman, through his organizing of a $2,500-a-head fundraising event Tuesday. The glitzy event drew half a dozen television camera crews and reporters doing stories about special interest fundraising.
The camera crews included an ABC team, whose film of Atwater residents Louise and Jim Farley entering the evening reception made a "Good Morning America" spot Wednesday. Louise Farley, who is a former Denham staffer and not a special interest representative, spent Wednesday morning getting kudos for her brief TV appearance.
"This is an historic event," Farley said Wednesday, "and we love D.C."
McClatchy Newspapers 2010